Six Who See the Future: Gay and lesbian tech innovators

Online outing. Bloggers. E-mail blasts. Political activism, business ventures, and everyday gay life have been forever changed by high-tech innovation and Internet communication. In this special report, The Advocate looks at the gay and lesbian trailblazers and rabble-rousers at the forefront of the cyber revolution. Meet the next generation of silicon all-stars — gay and lesbian innovators and entrepreneurs whose work is rocking the digital world.

TOM GERACE – Founder, BeFree.com and SupportEquality.org; Boston

Gerace laughingly describes himself as a “serial Internet entrepreneur.” The 33-year-old started his first Web-based company in 1996: online marketer BeFree, which provided advertising to more than 400 clients around the world until it was sold in 2002. Gerace went on to the online travel marketing company National Leisure Group, where he served until three months ago. Now he’s plotting a new venture. “[It’s] totally top-secret,” he says with a laugh. One of his other projects is very public: SupportEquality.org, an online clearinghouse for political donations that he describes as “one-click shopping for a candidate.” “The Internet can get the grassroots power that exists in the gay community and bring it together to have a massive impact on a specific issue,” he says.

WHAT’S THE NEXT BIG THING? “Niche-focused businesses that better meet the needs of individuals. Mass marketers [will] begin to lose a little bit of share.”

MEGAN SMITH – Director of New Business Development and Strategy, Google, Inc.; San Francisco

Smith has already done it all. She raced a solar-powered car in the Australian outback as an engineering student at MIT. She worked at some of the pivotal companies of the digital revolution, including Apple Computer and General Magic. And she served as CEO of PlanetOut. But Smith, 40, is just getting started. She’s helping Google revolutionize the search-engine world and teaching up-and-coming engineers how to fix the real one. As a Reuters Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford University last year, she advised researchers from around the world on ways to bring technology to developing nations. She also advises Design That Matters, an organization that enables engineering students to bring their technical expertise to bear on problems in the Third World. “Helping people access things they need is one of the best things you can do,” she says of her work at Google. ” It’s exciting to work on a set of products that really helps people in their daily lives.”

WHAT’S THE NEXT BIG THING? Smith expects to see enormous growth in online photography. “This year there are going to be 29 billion cell phone photos taken.”

KARL FRISCH – Vice-president, Democrats.com; Washington, D.C.

Frisch may have served Howard Dean as multimedia communications director, but he was once a Republican. But after he was gay-bashed while working for Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000, the 26-year-old reevaluated his political and personal choices. “I couldn’t comprehend why I’d ever worked for Republicans,” he says. Now, at the Internet consultancy Democrats.com, he helps create genuine two-way interactions between his clients and their constituents. “[Old-fashioned campaigns] think that by sending a questionnaire that is a thinly disguised fundraising pitch, they’re engaging people. People see right through that stuff,” he says. “If you build a community online, you’ll learn that people taking action is almost as valuable as people making a $100 donation.”

WHAT’S THE NEXT BIG THING? Community. “When organizations say ‘community,’ they need to back it up with resources. Real communities take time to grow [and] significant amounts of money.”

JASCHA FRANKLIN-HODGE – Founder, Blue State Digital; Washington, D.C.

In March, Franklin-Hodge and three other Dean campaign veterans founded Blue State Digital, which builds online communities centered around its clients. Most are political, but 25-year-old Franklin-Hodge hopes to apply the company’s model to corporations. “We’re not going to go work for Philip Morris on the ‘Smoke Yourself Thin’ campaign, but we’re not averse to working with corporations that are relatively neutral,” he says.

WHAT’S THE NEXT BIG THING? Access. “The closer you get to 100% [of people online], suddenly [the Internet] can be a primary educating and organizing mechanism.”

DAVID J. BLUMBERG – Managing Partner, Blumberg Capital; San Francisco

Having ruled out all the occupations in which being gay was seen as a liability, Blumberg became a venture capitalist. In 1991 he founded Blumberg Capital, investing in emerging security and software companies. That focus is no accident; it’s the result of a passionate belief in the power of individual entrepreneurship. “Innovation has been found in many studies to happen best in small, independent groups of entrepreneurs,” he says. “What have General Motors, AT&T and IBM innovated in the last 40 years? [They’ve done] nothing of the magnitude that has been created by startups.”

WHAT’S THE NEXT BIG THING? “Five years from now there will be a great deal of dynamism in the voice-over- [Internet] area. The whole area of communications will be very important.”

ANGELA BOOKER – Ph.D. student, Stanford University; San Francisco
At Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, Booker, 30, studies the ways computers affect people’s beliefs and actions. “What people aren’t aware of is that technology [is often] guiding them [toward] a particular perspective,” she says. “The perspective we see may seem like the only way things can be. If we’re not conscious of it, we may not realize that we have infinite possibility.”

WHAT’S THE NEXT BIG THING? “There’s a need for educators, designers and programmers to come together to design [technology] that’s useful for teachers.”

-The Advocate, 2004

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